Chapter 9: Of Misconceptions and Atonement for Sins

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 26

Again conforming to irrationality, Halley ended up tagging along to practice. It felt good to walk through the large double doors of the Old Gym again, and although she couldn't rightly explain why, it seemed as if the dim lights shone a little bit brighter than usual. Even though she did nothing more than sit and watch practice go by with Allyson, it seemed as if all of her senses were heightened. She supposed, in a way, what she was feeling was relief.

At the end of practice while the players were in the locker room, Halley sought out her father whom, with a towering stack of papers in his hands, was speaking animatedly with a man she didn't recognize. "Dad?" she asked tentatively, and he turned to face her, raising his eyebrows as he did so.

"Halley," he greeted. "I'd like you to meet Greg Graham, Director of Basketball Operations."

The man to whom he'd been speaking smiled warmly and offered her a hand. "Nice to meet you, Halley. Man, Jim, you didn't tell me she was this pretty!" he said, and she took his hand, slowly returning his smile. Greg Graham wasn't a large man, standing just a few inches above Halley herself, and appeared to perhaps be in his mid-forties. He had a head full of thick dark hair that was flecked with gray and pronounced laugh-wrinkles around his eyes.

"Nice to meet you, too," she answered as he released her hand, the smile never leaving his face. He reminded her uncannily of the father from The Brady Bunch.

"Was there something you wanted, Halley?" her father interjected, giving her a pointed stare. "I was wondering what you were doing here."

"That's what I wanted to talk to you about, actually," she admitted, taking a breath and letting it out slowly. "I…think I've made my decision."

Her father's eyebrows shot skyward, and Greg Graham – whom apparently had been filled in on the situation at hand – leaned forward a bit, perhaps in anticipation. Bless the man, he still had a hint of a smile on his face. Her father, however, looked a bit perturbed with her hesitation. "Well?" he prodded. "What is it?"

For a moment, under the steady scrutiny of eyes so similar to her own, she felt herself faltering. She wondered, albeit momentarily, what it would be like to have him as a large part of her life again. It had always been extremes with them – always the proverbial black or white. There was never that peaceful grey area that she craved almost as much as his approval. Would this make him be Daddy again?

"If the option is still open," she said softly, pausing a moment to steady herself under a torrent of thoughts, "I would be…honored…to take the job as your assistant coach."

Her father's face instantly brightened and he unexpectedly dropped his papers on the floor and enveloped her in an air-depriving embrace. She was too appalled at his behavior to return the affections, and her arms, as if restrained by hundred pound weights, just hung weakly at her side. She tried to recall the last time he'd hugged her like that, and was a bit depressed to realize that she really couldn't remember.

"Halley-girl, I knew you'd see things my way! This is great – amazing! I'm going to go get the guys so you can tell them the good news…"

Without another word, he was gone with a flourish to the locker room. Halley and Greg Graham exchanged awkward glances, and the latter shook his head, an easy smile appearing once more on his face. "Well, welcome to the team, Miss Cavallari," he said, and she returned his smile, this time without hesitation.

"Thank you, Mr. Graham."

"It looks like you've got quite an announcement to make, huh?"

He tilted his head in the direction of the locker room where the team, followed by her father, was in the process of filing out onto the court, the normally animated group unusually silent. Halley nodded slightly in resignation as they finished their trek across the court and stood expectantly in front of her and the assistant coach. She was immediately able to pick out Adam, who was standing in front of DeMario and Michael, who could easily see over his head, and with a Luke on either side. She tried not to look too hard, in fear of again getting lost in his kaleidoscope eyes, but once their gazes locked it was predictably difficult to look away.

It was her father's ever-booming voice that snapped her from her trance. "Alright, fellas, listen up," he announced, though it was hardly necessary to quiet them. "I know our success has been tainted a little bit by the loss of Bill Walters a couple days ago. Although a man like him could never be replaced, well…I suppose I'll let Halley say the rest," he said, gesturing to the woman in question, who swallowed nervously and let out an uneasy breath.

With only a hint of trepidation, Halley scanned the faces of the players before her. Zeke Novak looked baffled, and Ian Wyatt seemed to be in a world far apart from the Old Gym. Michael Bruce and DeMario Mason were whispering to each other, and Luke Jacobson appeared to be completely at ease. Ryan Robertson seemed particularly interested in something on the ceiling, for he was smiling at it. Luke Welling also had a grin on his face (and a basketball under his arm), and Adam Rushton's eyes were burning dizzily into hers as she opened her mouth to speak, paused a moment to choke on her tongue, and started over.

"Um, so first of all, please know that I'm really no good at this," she admitted, feeling her cheeks beginning to flush slightly. "But I'll try my best." She paused as a ripple of quiet laughter coursed through the players, and swallowed hard before continuing: "When I first came back to Eugene for Christmas Break and my father told me that I was to be coaching his basketball team while he was away, I can honestly say that I wasn't very happy about it – no offense," she amended quickly, a bit alarmed by the couple of playful glares she received. "Er, anyway…I think it's needless to say that I was terribly wrong about whatever it was that I was expecting. I've never really been great at pre-judging correctly – or at impromptu speeches in front of the people I'd pre-judged…" she paused a moment to let out a breath of nervous laughter. "Anyway, what I'm trying to say beneath all the rambling, is that…well, you guys are an amazing basketball team. And…amazing people."

For a moment she faltered, feeling her hands beginning to shake – a terrible nervous tick – and again studied the line of players. DeMario and Michael had stopped whispering, and were listening intently. The ease in LJ's demeanor had almost completely disappeared – he looked almost anxious – and Ryan's attention had been averted from the rafters. Wells was still smiling, and Adam had the beginnings of a smile on his face as well. "The more I pondered it, the more I realized how unfair I was being to myself for leaving," she confessed, only slightly surprised at her honesty. "I realized that…well, that I would miss each and every one of you so much more than I thought I would. That's when my father offered me an opportunity that, after some thinking, I realized I couldn't turn down."

She paused as her eyes again met Adam's. "You're sticking around then?" he asked, his voice soft and almost melodious to her ears.

"I would be so happy, if you all would allow it, to take the job of assistant coach. It would be an honor to call myself a part of this basketball team," she finished with an air of confidence that literally had come from nowhere, and Adam's face broke into its trademark grin.

"Consider it done, Coach," said Wells.

Adam, with one arm around Halley and the other around Wells, headed in the direction of the Mustang with a bit of spring in his step. Halley's smile was infectious, and when Wells broke away from Adam to take a swipe at LJ, whom had stolen the point guard's basketball from under his arm, Adam found himself skipping alongside her the rest of the way to the car. He knew he looked – and perhaps felt – like a child, but he was beyond caring what his teammates may have thought. Halley laughed, both of them breathless, and he squeezed her hand slightly before letting her retreat to her own car.

After a short team meeting, he and his housemates, plus Ryan, Novak, Michael, Allyson, and their voted upon guest of honor, Halley, had made a hurried plan to head back to the house to celebrate. LJ had insisted upon cracking open the champagne that they'd been planning to use for New Year's, and he wouldn't have any objections. According to him, "This is a special occasion, and if we don't celebrate, I'm kicking you all the hell out of the house and drinking it all myself!" Not wanting to turn their friend into any more of blubbering alcoholic, they relented.

As such, an hour later found them sprawled out on the floor, everyone with a plastic wineglass of champagne in their hands (or, in LJ's case, a half-empty bottle of his preferred Jack Daniels), with the exception of Adam, whom had been forced to explain multiple times that he was keeping to his vow of no distractions; Wells, who apparently had learned his lesson about alcohol at some certain teammates' most recent housewarming party; and Halley, whom – as she'd informed LJ when he'd offered to transfer a sip from his mouth to hers – "didn't drink". As drunken of an endeavor as this one was turning out to be, it was only proper that they were engaged in a heated game of Battle of the Sexes. Since the girls were vastly outnumbered, Wells and Adam had attempted to get LJ to convert to their team, but even in the throes of belligerent inebriation, he wouldn't have it. It was rather sad that, even with the males' strength in numbers and valiant effort to understand the female mind, the women were still beating them miserably.

Not all was miserable, however, as Adam's position argued. He spent a majority of the evening seated quite comfortably under an afghan. With Halley's head rested on his shoulder. And his hand rested on her thigh. Yes, life was treating him quite nicely, and he figured, hell, since he was showing such utmost devotion by not taking a sip from Novak's glass of champagne sitting near his leg, he may as well splurge as far as the girl beside him was concerned. Besides, it was completely innocent, and everyone, especially LJ, was too intoxicated to notice anyway. Well, except for Wells, but secrets can be kept, can't they?

The party seemed to dwindle down sometime around three o'clock in the morning. Wells ushered a rowdy LJ and a stumbling DeMario upstairs, Ryan made himself comfortable at the bottom of the stairs before promptly passing out, Zeke disappeared into the bathroom and never returned, and Michael and Allyson slept in the armchair while Adam lingered on the porch with Halley.

"Thanks for everything," she said after a brief moment of silence, and he had to pause a moment just to admire how beautiful she was in the moonlight. "I mean, I really appreciate that you…" she began hurriedly, obviously taking his silence the wrong way, and he chuckled a little as he reached out and brushed a wayward strand of hair from her face.

"I really appreciate you," he said softly, and she stopped instantly, her mouth falling open ever so attractively. He took advantage of her surprise by closing the distance between them and swiftly pressing his open mouth to hers. The typical twinge of guilt and regret followed, but he managed to shove it away. "And, I appreciate that you're staying."

Halley studied him for a moment, clearly searching for a response. Finally, she mimicked his earlier action and tentatively brushed a swatch of messy dark hair from his eyes. "Well, I appreciate that," she said, her voice merely more than a whisper. "Goodnight, Adam."

With that, she retreated to her car. He watched until he could no longer see her fading tail lights in the distance, and shook his head in disgruntlement at how pathetic he had inadvertently become. She's just a girl, man. You don't have time for this. He sighed as he stepped back into the house, shutting the door softly behind him, and nearly jumped out of his skin as he collided with Wells.

"Something's going on with you two, isn't it?" the point guard accused quietly, and Adam stopped in his tracks, turning so abruptly that he almost sent the Christmas tree to the ground.

"What do you mean?" Adam asked, a crushing feeling assaulting his chest, and Wells plucked an ornament from the tree and tossed it at him.

"Don't be foolish, mate!" he admonished, a hint of a twinkle apparent in his eyes. "Obviously I saw you two all snuggled together earlier. Contrary to popular belief, my mind isn't so basketball oriented – uh, no offense – that I don't notice what's going on around me!"

Adam looked at his teammate in surprise, not sure whether to be annoyed at the fact that he'd just insulted his brain, or amused at how outspoken he was being. Finally, he settled with a chuckle. "Okay, fine. Tonight was just a fluke, though, man. We're just friends – that's all we can be, you know."

Wells rolled his eyes. "It's not like I have a problem with it, mate," he said. "Honestly, I'd welcome it myself. Anything to get you off your damn soapbox about your "dedication" when obviously you have enough of that, as you've been averaging about twenty points a game!"

Adam laughed again, feeling a bit of his discomfort melting away. "Basketball comes first, Wells. You've said it, too – this is our season, and I want to embrace it. I can't have other things getting in the way."

"But you also can't let basketball get in the way of your personal life either, Adam," Wells pointed out. "If you really like this girl – and God only knows if you do – then don't let something as trivial as a game get in the way of that."

Adam raised his eyebrows at him. He certainly hadn't expected something like that to come out of the mouth of Luke Welling, someone that, quite practically, could have been said to love said game more than even he did. "It's not just a game, Wells. I know you know that."

The point guard sighed. "I know. You've just been so wrapped up lately, mate. I'll think something's up, and really you're just running offensive sets through your head."

"I'm fine, I promise," Adam assured, chucking the discarded ornament back at him. "You don't have to worry about me. Just wait till we win the Championship, okay? Things can wait."

"Yeah, I guess you're right. It would be pretty nice, wouldn't it? God, it's what I've been waiting for ever since I was a kid…"

"It will be pretty nice," Adam corrected, and Wells laughed.

"Don't you ever worry?"

Adam shrugged. "Yeah, I guess so. I'm just trying to enjoy it right now. I mean, we're undefeated, Wells. This is what I've always wanted. I just feel so close…"

"Yeah," Wells said softly. "Yeah, me too." Adam hung the ornament back on the tree, and Wells flipped off the light. They headed upstairs in silence, and as Adam opened the door to his room, he heard Wells's voice coming from down the hall. "You're right," he said, "It will be nice."

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 27

Seated atop the scorers table of the Old Gym, Halley felt oddly at peace. The team had yet to step onto the court, and the atmosphere surrounding her was serene, broken only by the barely audible sound of her own breathing. She gazed up at the banners hanging from the ceiling, and felt a goofy smile quirking at her lips. This gym was her home now. This ancient structure with its aged banners and scuffed floor…she supposed she owed it something. A laugh penetrated the silence, and continued more heartily when she realized it was her own. She was bonding with an inanimate old building.

The sound of voices echoing throughout the gym brought her back to herself, and she sprung to her feet quickly. The team was exiting the locker room, Adam in the lead, and Halley smiled at him as they approached her. She noticed that the familiar sleeve was absent from his leg, and felt a swell of excitement for him at the thought that the shin splints that had plagued him from their first meeting must have all but gone away. She hadn't the time to give the matter any more thought, however, as she was suddenly hit in the stomach with a sloppily-aimed basketball.

"Halley, pay attention!"

She cradled the ball to her chest in shock as another one was chucked in her direction, missing her head by mere centimeters before connecting with the wall behind her and eventually rolling to rest near her feet. "Take these over to the other side of the court and put them under the basket, would you?" She nodded numbly, taking a moment to look back at her father, who was juggling five or six balls in his own arms, before doing as he'd instructed.

After completing her task, she contented herself with roaming aimlessly around her side of the court while the team huddled up at mid-court with her father. They remained in deep discussion for about ten minutes before breaking off to stretch. Halley caught Adam's eye once, and he shot her a devil-may-care grin that she hesitantly returned. That boy, she feared, was going to be the death of her.

After the team run through some elementary ball handling drills, her father took the starters down to one end of the court, and Halley worked alongside Greg Graham with the back-ups at the other. She paid particular attention to Zeke Novak, who garnered a chorus of whoops and hollers by burying twenty-two three-point shots in a row before finally clunking the twenty-third off of the back iron. He shrugged off his display with a sheepish grin, and Halley made a mental note to bring the gangly freshman's surprising stroke to her father's attention later. As far as she was concerned, with a shot like that, the kid certainly deserved something a bit more substantial than a seat at the end of the bench.

"Halley, come over here!"

She looked up at the sound of her father's voice and shook her head slightly, fighting back a smile at the inordinate pleasure he seemed to take in ordering her around. Practice had adjourned about five minutes earlier and the players had been dismissed to the locker room, so the only people left on the court were she and Allyson, who were wrangling up the basketballs, plus her father, Greg Graham, and three other men to whom she hadn't yet been introduced.

Halley tossed the remaining ball into the metal container and slammed the lid down with a heave, and then turned and walked across the court to where her father was standing. She noticed that three pairs of eyes were focused on her, identical curious expressions painted onto their owners' countenances.

"Halley, I'd like to introduce you to the rest of the men on my staff: Fred Luxemburg, Joshua Lovett, and Jason Williams," her father said, indicating the aforementioned pairs of eyes. Halley smiled in acknowledgement and studied each of them carefully. Fred Luxemburg looked to be in his mid-to-late sixties with a balding head and fine wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. His kind, grandfatherly appearance that reminded her somewhat of the man on the Quaker Oats box. Joshua Lovett, she figured, was about her father's age, and boasted a head full of thick dark hair that was not unlike Greg Graham's and a neatly trimmed goatee. Jason Williams, on the other hand, looked to be not too much older than she was, probably in his late-twenties, and had clean-cut sandy brown hair and the build of a football player. He looked almost comical standing next to her father, who was minute in comparison.

"I'm sure you will all get along great, since you'll be spending most of your free time in the same vicinity. But anyway, we're having a short meeting with the Athletics Director in just a few minutes. Halley, you're free to go home, being as there's really no reason for you to attend. I'll be home in a couple of hours."

And with that, her father turned his back to her and took his leave. She shook the hands of each of the three coaches, exchanged a wave with Greg, and journeyed to the other end of the court where Wells, Adam, and LJ had torn into the basketballs that she'd just cleaned up. They were all in their street clothes, so she figured they'd vacated the locker room with the intention of going home until they'd noticed the basketballs. Halley smiled to herself, grabbing her own ball from the container and rotating it in her hands, suddenly growing wistful. She'd used to get caught doing the exact same thing after her own practices.

The guys didn't seem to notice her approaching, and it appeared to surprise them immensely when an unidentified basketball flew over their heads and through the hoop. They all momentarily stopped what they were doing to turn and look at her.

"How was the first day on the job?" Wells asked, his face brightening, and he brought his ball to a halt under his left arm.

"Not too tedious, I hope?" Adam added, and Halley quirked a bit of a smile.

"Oh, I don't know, watching the three of you make every shot you put up does get pretty monotonous," she quipped, and LJ proved her point by burying a turn-around jump shot from the right wing.

"It's streaky," Wells assured, shaking his head. "Tomorrow the only person that will be able to make a shot in practice is Novak."

Halley brought a hand to her face in annoyance at his comment. She'd forgotten to talk to her father about the lanky freshman's shooting.

Adam chuckled. "The scary thing is that that's happened more than once this year. But then in the game, he completely clams up and won't shoot. I yell at him all the time for it, but he won't listen..."

"Coach really doesn't give him all that much playing time to begin with, and then he comes in and gives us a couple turnovers and maybe a foul or two," LJ interjected, and Wells shook his head.

"The guy just needs to get some confidence."

Halley nodded in agreement. "I saw how well he was shooting today. A kid like that deserves more playing time."

"If only he provided more than a worse team assist-to-turnover ratio," declared LJ, and Halley sighed, studying the wingman's stony facial expression with a touch of confusion.

"Maybe I could work with him or something. I'm going to talk to my father about it later," she decided, and the three players exchanged glances, all looking a bit skeptical.

"Go ahead and go for it," Adam said finally, shaking a bit of hair out of his face. "I think you're right. We do need something more off of the bench. The scoring dips a whole lot when one of our guards goes out, and if he can just get some more confidence…he is only a freshman. He's got a lot of room for improvement."

"You've got my vote as well," Wells decided after a moment, dribbling his ball between his legs. "It's worth a shot."

"I beg to differ…" LJ chided in a singsong voice; attempting a ridiculous backwards shot, which missed terribly and bounced off of the top of the backboard, but then running and getting his rebound, putting it back soundly with a dunk.

"Oh, ignore him," Wells commented in an undertone. "He's just upset because Novak stole the girl he was crushing on a couple months ago…"

Halley raised her eyebrows in surprise. How anyone could choose the fairly plain Zeke Novak over the attractive, charismatic Luke Jacobson baffled her beyond belief.

"Well, he did make a point of completely ignoring her the month before it happened," Adam said, shaking his head at the floppy-haired wingman, who was still hanging from the rim. "It seemed like I talked to the poor girl more than he did, because every time she called he'd make me answer his phone and tell her he wasn't home."

Halley stared at him incredulously. "Why on earth would he do that?"

Wells and Adam exchanged glances, and the latter shrugged. "He never wants to get too close, I'd imagine. Makes him vulnerable."

"Oh, my," she said softly, and the guys both chuckled.

"That's our LJ," Wells quipped, and Halley watched as said Luke finally leapt back to the floor. He jogged a few paces to his left, picked up his ball, and twirled it listlessly in his hands. There was something enchantingly odd about LJ, she realized then, studying the steady rise and fall of his chest. He seemed so at ease with himself, so confident, yet so…veiled. She supposed she rather admired him for it, for he had a way about him that she knew she could never imitate.

Suddenly the wingman turned and his eyes met hers. She felt a blush settling into her cheeks as she realized he'd caught her staring again. Lord, he must have thought she had such a crush on him. Surprisingly, though, he didn't offer the usual impish wink or lurid comment. Instead…he simply smiled.

"Do you need a ride home or anything?" he asked, shocking her with the uncharacteristic amount of politeness in his voice, and she shook her head slowly.

"No, thanks," she answered, feeling almost remorseful for some unfathomable reason. "My car's outside. Speaking of which, I should probably go." LJ nodded in assent, a peculiar expression on his face, and Halley bade each of them goodbye before crossing the court and exiting through the large double-doors.

She was halfway across the parking lot when he caught up with her. "Hey," he said, slowing and matching her pace. "I'm sorry, but would you mind giving me a ride home? Dumb and Dumber aren't ready to go yet, and I'm really tired."

Halley looked up at him, intrigued by the ease with which his words always seemed to come out, and found herself struggling to match his long strides. She couldn't, and felt stupid when she realized he was still waiting for an answer. "Oh, yes, sure," she said quickly, and he chuckled lightly at her expense. She felt her face burning again and looked away as she unlocked her car. LJ had quite a talent for making her blush, and he seemed to take quite a bit of pride in it.

"Thanks a lot," he said sincerely as Halley pulled the car out of the parking lot. "I didn't get much sleep last night, and sticking around here didn't seem like that grand of an idea."

"Did you do anything else after I left last night?" she asked before she could stop herself. It was inane to even want to know, and somehow she doubted that she really did. What Luke Jacobson got up to late at night was hardly anyone's business but his own.

The man in question cleared his throat, looking slightly uncomfortable. "I was…out," was all he said, and Halley instantly knew better than to beg for details.

"Do you have a girlfriend, LJ?" she asked instead, again biting her tongue against her curiosity, and the wingman laughed aloud, as if just the prospect were ridiculous.

"I'm not really one for relationships," he answered easily. "I suppose you could call me a hedonist, in some sense. Life's too short to be tied down, right?"

"I suppose," she answered semi-honestly. Halley had always considered herself to be some sort of hopeless romantic. Kit, however, had laughingly labeled her a cynic. "I've only been in one long relationship, and it was the worst idea I've ever had," she said, leaving only a moment to wonder why the hell she had just told LJ that. She never thought about such trifling matters anymore, and certainly never talked about it.

"What was his name?" LJ asked, and she took her eyes off the road for a moment to take in the strange friendliness in his demeanor. She sighed in response – his apparent change in temperament was offering her nothing but more confusion – and paused a moment to decide whether or not to say anything more.

"Jake," she said finally. "We dated my first two years of college. It was a mistake."

"Maybe that's what scares me about it," LJ said, and Halley was surprised at the seriousness lurking behind his dark eyes. "Wasting my time, you know?"

"How do you do it?" she asked suddenly, and the wingman raised his eyebrows in amusement.

"Do what?" he asked, and she rolled her eyes at her apparent lack of control.

"How are you so confident?" she clarified after a moment of awkward silence, and she was surprised to see him shut his eyes for a moment. This was the question she'd so much wanted to ask, and he seemed…disappointed.

"I'm kind of a bastard, is all," he said finally, an unusual expression on his face.

Halley shook her head as she pulled into his driveway. "No, you're not," she decided, putting her car into park and studying him for a long moment. As she searched a pair of eyes that she knew had been gazed into longingly many times before, she wondered if he was right. But, no…he was too fascinating to have such a simple explanation.

He chuckled, and then winked at her as he opened his door. "Don't tell anybody, then," he said lightly. "Later, gator."

He shut the door behind him and jogged up to his porch, and Halley watched him enter the house as she pulled back out onto the road. Luke Jacobson, she decided then, was truly bizarre.

Her mind was uncharacteristically blank throughout the entire drive back to her house, and she was surprised to find herself feeling almost happy to be pulling into her own driveway. She locked her car and made her way up to her porch, wondering fleetingly if she looked anything like LJ had. Suave, graceful, charming, and…odd. She let the door fall shut behind her and leaned against it, wondering rashly if Adam was still at the Old Gym. She touched the locket hanging from her neck and decided that yes, he probably was.

"Halley? Is that you?"

She jumped so high that her head nearly grazed the ceiling and, clutching her pounding heart, managed an undignified roll of the eyes as her father approached her. Nope, sorry, she answered inwardly as she gasped for breath. I'm just someone breaking into your house with a loaded weapon. "Yes, it's me," she replied instead.

"Good, I need to talk to you. As you know, we're leaving tomorrow for Madison. I just wanted to make sure that you knew that you were required to come as well," he said, and she stared at him blankly. "Have you figured out when you're going to tell your coach about your decision?"

Halley paused a moment to catch her breath from her scare and eventually managed a decisive nod. "Yes. I figured that I could drive back to Chapel Hill after we get back from Madison. My next game is on the second, so I thought that you could come up there with me so I could play my last game and tie up all the loose ends."

Her father's eyes widened, and Halley felt a twinge of apprehension at the way he suddenly began to study the ground. "Halley," he said evenly, "I need to be here with the team. Their first conference game is on the fourth."

Quite suddenly, it felt as though a bomb had erupted in her stomach. She wasn't Halley Cavallari anymore. Oh, no. She was Hiroshima, and her father – her brilliant but so utterly parenting-inept father – was J. Robert Oppenheimer. His atomic bomb, it seemed, was a success. His poor target was imploding so magnificently that speaking was just not an option at the moment.

Halley, struggling to keep from disintegrating beneath wave upon wave of dangerously scalding anger, found it nearly impossible to find the proper words to explain to him just how much she truly, truly hated him. After all she had done – after all she had sacrificed for him – he still couldn't find the decency within himself to change. She should have known better than to fall victim once again to her own wishful thinking. It hadn't been a mistake to flee to North Carolina, and it hadn't been even remotely a mistake to estrange him from her life. He would never change, damn him. He loved his team, he loved himself, and there was just no room left in his tiny little heart for her.

"Halley," he said after a long moment, clearly not oblivious to the cavernous eruptions taking place throughout her central nervous system. In fact, he even managed to look at least slightly remorseful. "I really am sorry, but the team needs me here, and I…"

She held up a hand to stop him, and had to virtually restrain herself from taking the next logical step and striking his face. This, truly, above everything else, was the last straw. "No," she managed, her voice tremulous and tiny and not at all embodying the sheer rage that was enveloping her at the moment. "The team needs you? What about me, Dad? Don't you think that I need you?" she demanded desperately. "Don't you think I've always needed you? God, I've let this go on for too long! All this time…all this time you've been so goddamned wrapped up with your stupid basketball team…all this time you've been so goddamned self-absorbed…don't you think I might have needed you?" She paused, her breaths turning into painful wheezes, and watched him struggle to mask the look of astonishment that was etched across his features. "You could have at least taken the time to come to a single one of my games!" she accused, cutting him off as he attempted to speak. "And now, here we are. This is the lastone, Dad – and it's the last one because of you. How can you live with yourself knowing that after I've given everything up for you, you weren't there to support me? You were never there! You've never been there!" Halley bit her tongue to keep from saying more, and she felt the prickle of angry tears welling up in her eyes. I will not cry, she vowed silently. I will not let him have the satisfaction

He faltered slightly, obviously startled almost to the point of speechlessness, before drawing in a ragged breath and saying: "Halley, I'm…I didn't realize…"

"That is exactly the problem, Dad. You don't realize – you never did!" Halley screamed, unable to stop the six years' worth of angry, burning tears that were now streaming down her cheeks. "You don't care about me, Dad! The only person in the world you truly care about is Jim Cavallari! You don't care about me, you don't even have any friends, and underneath it all you really don't even care about your stupid basketball team. You want your glory – for you," she accused, her voice decreasing in volume as undignified sobs wracked her body. God, how she hated him. She hated him, she hated his stupid ambition, and she hated herself even more for giving a damn about what he thought. Despite everything she knew about him, she'd allowed him to fool her one last time, and now she was a member of the Oregon Ducks basketball team – a disembodied entity she had loathed from the beginning – as a result.

For once in his lifetime, it seemed as if her father, a man who always had to get the last word in, was completely and utterly speechless. Halley stood in the middle of the living room, knees threatening to leave her just as unsupported as he had. Struggling through tears, she somehow managed to look at him, a bit surprised at how utterly lost her father appeared to be, his figure slumped, eyes downcast, standing with somewhat childish posture only a few feet away from her.

"It…it's not like that, you know…" he finally said, stepping tentatively, if that was a word that could even be used in accordance with her father, across the room, reaching down and throwing open the cabinet behind him. Stacked neatly in rows, were tons upon tons of video tapes. Halley stared at him in defiance, refusing to move even merely to wipe the tears from her cheeks, but eventually curiosity won out. After a long, long moment, she walked over to him, and bent down to study the contents of the cabinet. On the videotapes, labeled in familiar sloppy script, were the words she had least expected to see: Halley—Game 1: Iowa – freshman; Halley—Game 17: vs. Florida State – junior; Halley—Game 3: vs. Purdue– senior.

"Dad?" she asked in disbelief, her breath catching painfully in her throat. Her father, her egotistical, negligent father…he'd recorded her games? And kept them?

"I've never missed a televised game, Halley," he said softly, eyeing the cabinet of videotapes earnestly. "Not once."

All Halley could do was stare at him. There were so many things she wanted to say, but she couldn't force the words over the lump in her throat. Her mind was comparable to the chaotic tenacity of a whirlwind, and all of the emotions that she'd kept bottled up for so long were threatening to spill over once more.

Over the past six years, she had found a number of reasons to hate her father, but the largest of which had been the fact that he hadn't cared enough to even pretend. But now that she knew the truth, that everything she had forced myself to believe had been wrong, she felt as though she'd been living a very intricately fabricated lie. A lie that had made her so angry, so bitter toward the one person that she had cared about the most…and that was all it had been. A lie.

Her father cleared his throat. "If it really means that much to you, I suppose I can have Greg run practice for a couple of days…"

Halley blinked back more irritating tears and wiped her eyes on the back of her hand in annoyance. "Dad," she said, her voice sounding gravelly and strained and utterly not her own, "I don't want you to feel obligated to go just because I…want you to."

He shook his head and hesitated before speaking. "No…I – I want to go. I don't ever want you to think that I don't want to watch you play. Hell, Halley…I know it may not have always seemed like it, especially in recent years, but…we've always been in this thing together, you know? It's selfish of me to not be there, and I realize that. I know how important this is to you…and I also want you to know how important it is to me that you're happy. We can't go on like this, living in the same house and avoiding each other like the Plague. We can fly up there on the thirty-first and be back by the third."

Again she struggled to answer but couldn't find the words. It was as though everything she had once known and believed had just been thrown out the window along with every last shred of her dignity. He'd recorded her games, and…he wanted her to be happy.

"Do we have a truce, Halley-girl? If we're going to be working together, we need to at least try to get along."

She stared at the hand that was being offered to her, and finally took it, agreeing to his terms. She allowed herself a wan smile. This was the Dad that she knew. Instead of hugs, he offered handshakes.

He smiled back. "Good, it's settled then. Now, there's one more thing that needs to be dealt with…" He turned around for a moment and retrieved something from the coffee table, holding it out to her almost reverently. It was the photo of the Louisiana Superdome he had presented to the team on Christmas Eve. "The whole team hasn't signed this yet, Halley. Your signature is the one we're waiting on," he explained, extending to her a black permanent marker.

Halley took both the photo and the marker from his hands and sat down on the couch, feeling slightly awed by his offer. He was trying to make her feel welcome, she realized, studying the photo and the scrawling signatures that covered it. After so many years of pushing each other away, he was trying to make her feel welcome.

Despite how emotionally-drained she felt at the moment, it was hard for Halley to hide the rush that she felt as she added her name to the list below Luke Jacobson and beside Adam Rushton. She was truly a part of the team now. Looking over the signatures one last time, Halley capped the marker and looked up at her father, who nodded appreciatively. "Good," he said, a smile gracing his features. "Now, let's get started on some game film…"

Author's note: Do you think I expressed Halley's feelings sufficiently in this chapter? Please let me know – REVIEW!